Michael P. Howard, Postdoc, University of Texas at Austin: The Future of Chemical Engineering

As part of AIChE's 110th Year Celebration, this series provides perspectives on the future of chemical engineering from dozens of leaders in industry, academia, and at national laboratories.

We continue with Mike Howard, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, working with Prof. Thomas Truskett. He recently earned his PhD from Princeton University under the supervision of Prof. Athanassios Panagiotopoulos, studying soft matter out of equilibrium.

During AIChE’s centennial year of 2008, AIChE interviewed chemical engineers to learn their perspectives on the profession’s future. In today’s blog post, Dr. Howard presents his visions for chemical engineering post-2018.

Looking 25 years into the future, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

Three major technological opportunities will lead to an increased use of computer simulations in chemical engineering research and industry over the next 25 years.

First, powerful computing resources will become more widely available and accessible through both traditional institutions (e.g., government-supported supercomputing centers, universities) and industry (e.g., cloud-computing services, corporate data centers). Computing is likely to become increasingly distributed across these services for higher throughput execution.

Second, to exploit these resources fully, improved algorithms and software will be (re-)designed for emerging transformative, massively parallel computing architectures such as graphics-processing units. Such parallel computing technologies, particularly those tailored to public consumers, will continue to reduce the costs associated with computational research.

There is an accompanying urgent need for scientists and engineers to effectively communicate the importance of their work to the public. I expect that chemical engineers will play an increased role moving forward...

Finally, computing resources will be utilized more efficiently as data science is fused with the physical sciences and engineering to leverage information more effectively.

Taken together, these technological opportunities will easily surpass the exascale computing goal for the United States, making computer simulations a staple of chemical engineering.

Core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber-tools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area? 

I fully expect molecular-scale engineering to play an increased role in multiscale process and product design as our understanding increases. Chemical engineers are uniquely equipped to tackle these challenges given the inherent multiscale nature of our training — from chemistry at the molecular level to fluid mechanics and transport at the mesoscale and up to process synthesis at the macroscale.

Computer modeling will play an important role in the virtual screening of candidate molecular structures for applications ranging from designing the rheological properties of complex fluids to the selection of pharmaceutical active ingredients. Virtual screening and the rational design of experiments will become an important cost-saving tool in research, supported by increased expertise in molecular modeling and computer science.

Further, I expect that engineering design problems will expand to encompass objectives at multiple scales, such as concurrently engineering the microscopic characteristics of a material as well as the process by which it will be manufactured or produced. Molecular-scale engineering and computer modeling will play an increased role not only in traditional chemical engineering challenges such as oil recovery, but also in sustainability-focused initiatives such as water treatment, particularly as global energy demands evolve.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee? 

The rational design of materials, incorporating a high-throughput feedback loop between automated execution of many experiments and/or simulations in parallel, analysis or modeling of results, and selection of new experiments based on existing information, will likely attract considerable attention in the future.

Research in this area will demand expertise in molecular-scale engineering, experimental design, and data science. As computational modeling and methods become more widespread, I expect the barriers between these traditionally separated areas to greatly decrease.

Another major research area I expect to grow is the design of self-assembling materials, including not only the design of the materials themselves but (newly) the optimal processes by which they can assemble. There exists a rich toolbox of nonequilibrium assembly processes to build functional materials customized for individual engineering applications, but the understanding of these tools is still in a nascent stage that will greatly mature in the future.

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future — what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

Over the next 25 years, there will be increased demand for a diversified chemical engineering profession to promote innovation and discovery. In order to achieve this goal, education and outreach must increase across all levels, but particularly for middle-school, high-school, and undergraduate students, so that the next generation of chemical engineers can envision themselves in the profession.

There is an accompanying urgent need for scientists and engineers to effectively communicate the importance of their work to the public. I expect that chemical engineers will play an increased role moving forward, sharing their industries and discoveries with broader audiences given the increasingly wide-ranging career paths of our profession.

Finally, in the future, there will likely be an increased burden on private industry to advance sustainable technology, supported by public demand. Chemical engineers will be well-positioned to apply their multiscale training to find solutions that balance technological needs with sustainability goals and ethical demands. Chemical engineering training already includes the tools to confront these challenges. The next step is to take action.


AIChE's 110 Year Celebration

Celebrate AIChE's 110-year anniversary. Attend this Annual Meeting session, focusing on the future of chemical engineering through the eyes of thought leaders from industry, academia, and national laboratories.

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